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Kate Branca

Confessions of a Lapsed Catholic Dancer

Getty, Stephen Arnold, Illustration by Homestead

Kate Branca | Longreads | May 2019 | 22 minutes (5,497 words)

 

You hear the drums before you see us, a circle of figures facing inward, our arms rigid, our feet pounding the stage in an even, rhythmic, side-stepping march. The circle bobs up and down with our forcefulness. Our costumes are geometric bodysuits, designed not to contour to our human bodies, but to transform them into something more angular, hardened, like a shell. They have V-neck fronts and stiff cap sleeves and straight pant legs that stop suddenly at the shin, transforming our bodies into great Xs of yellow, purple, and black. We wear strips of black tape on our cheeks, like war paint. Our costumes make us look like ancient Aztecs or alien warriors — beings of a past or future time.

When I am wearing that costume and bound to that ring, I am transported back nine years; suddenly I am a 19-year-old performing the choreography of Robert Battle with my college dance company — and also none of those things. It feels like I am nothing, or that we are collectively something else, emptied, but electric, maybe capable of boring a hole in space or time. During a performance, when I catch sight of something mundane among us, like a wisp of hair sprung from Brittany’s bun, or a nervous twitch in Erin’s fingers, my chest blooms with love for the moment: for the startling gift of feeling like I am many people, in many places, traversing many times all at once.

We twist and extend our arms into wide, heavenward Vs and beckon the stage lights with flicks of our hands. We tuck and splay and smack our thighs. Then the pace of the drumming quickens with a RAPAPAPAPAP! and one in our company enters the center of the circle where a spotlight appears. She spins wildly in one direction, then the other, her feet stamping the ground as fast as the mallets hitting the drums. Meanwhile, those of us around her shoot our arms into the air like crops hit by a sudden gust of wind. She rejoins the circle so that only the light remains inside the ring made up of our bodies, and now that it’s there, finally there, we are frenzied by it. Hopping, slamming, jumping, falling, flinging ourselves in patterns around its edges. With a final pound, the drums stop, leaving us standing around the light’s rim with our feet wide, arch to arch with one another, arms by our sides, chests heaving, but open to the sky, our necks craned toward whatever bulb or star gave us this brightness. We lower our chins as the stage fades to black.

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